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Blacks’ Evolving Views of Gay Marriage

In the 1967 landmark case Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the question of whether love was colorblind in the eyes of the law. By invalidating anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized marriages between blacks and whites, the court acknowledged that the foundational right to "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" transcended race and extended to matters of the heart.

Mildred Loving, the African-American wife of fellow plaintiff Richard Loving, a white man, would later support marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples with a simple pronouncement: "That is what Loving, and loving, are all about."

In 2012 the court has boldly taken up two cases that may well decide the fate of marriage laws — gay-marriage laws — for the next generation.

One case determines the legality of California's Proposition 8, a referendum that stripped same-sex couples of marriage rights; while the other case, Windsor v. United States, challenges the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that prohibits benefits to gay couples who are legally married and allows states to disregard same-sex marriages performed in other states. The central question is whether these laws violate the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Both cases will be argued in March 2013 and decided in June.

The fate of those decisions remains in doubt. Though the current membership of the court is tilted toward conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts proved that he was willing to transcend political divides in the much-anticipated challenge to the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare"). Likewise, Justice Anthony Kennedy, long considered the court's crucial "swing vote," wrote the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark case that struck down antiquated sodomy laws and helped pave the way for subsequent LGBT legal victories.

There is reason, therefore, to hope.

The court's review also comes after a major shift in public opinion on this subject. A recent Gallup poll shows that 73 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 expressed support for marriage equality, and a Quinnipiac poll shows that the majority of all Americans are in favor. And George Will, a vintage conservative and Washington Post columnist, put it best when he said, "Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It's old people."

And it seems that African Americans are pioneers in this gay-marriage thought revolution.

Exit polls conducted on Nov. 6 found that 52 percent of black and Hispanic voters favor marriage equality. President Obama's expression of support earlier this year may have played a role in that shift. Four years ago, California's Prop 8 garnered 70 percent of the state's African-American electorate, and a North Carolina anti-gay ballot initiative that was up for a vote right before Obama's announcement literally divided the black community — having been opposed by the NAACP but supported by prominent voices among the African-American clergy.

Nonetheless, polls suggest that the majority of African Americans now support Martin Luther King Jr.'s prophetic perspective that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. Some of that majority spoke exclusively to The Root about the evolution of African Americans on the subject of gay rights.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, an organization committed to eradicating homophobia within the African-American community, is straight and self-describes as "a sister in the movement." She said that her commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality was inspired by the likes of Shirley Chisholm and legendary congresswoman Barbara Jordan. "I'm a Delta. Jordan was, too," she said. "After she died, I discovered she had left her entire estate to her life partner. She had been silent about her orientation because of the era in which she lived. I immediately became determined that others not bear the burden of that silence."

Perhaps things would have been different for Jordan today. Kimberley McLeod, NBJC's communications director, explained evolving attitudes on this issue. "African Americans have never been monolithically homophobic," she said. "I think what we are seeing is that the national conversation and media depictions have changed. The diversity of opinion that already existed is finally being reflected and openly expressed in the black community."

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The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS.